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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Fashion can be a liberating force

<body dresses like me,” she confessed. Walking into busy spaces like the dining hall, this fashionista could “feel the stares.” At Carleton, if you dress differently, “you can feel people’s eyes bore into you,” and judgement extends from your entire community, not just from other Carls.

A few days ago, the person I was talking to told me about an unpleasant encounter in the dining hall. She was wearing no bra, a golden and black see-through shirt, and a khaki miniskirt. The person in front of her had caught a croissant on fire in the toaster, so a student worker came over and put it out. However, she overheard one of the adult Bon Appetit workers hired by the school telling one of the chefs that it was she who had caused the toaster fire. This particular worker referred to my peer as “the girl who’s not wearing anything in the see-through shirt” and condemned her outfit as “disgusting.” My interviewee confronted the Bon App worker, asking if there was a dress code in the dining hall. The staff member only replied by saying the shirt was “really see-through.”

As students, not all of us have experienced direct confrontation regarding our clothing choices. In fact, most people on campus don’t seem to put much thought into what they wear and how or why they wear it. Considering we attend a prestigious liberal arts institution that emphasizes “books before looks,” as one Overheard comment puts it, this is not unexpected. But there is so much more to fashion and styling than mere presentation.

Growing up, I was never allowed to wear makeup at home. I didn’t feel comfortable wearing what I wanted to wear. My parents, first-generation Chinese immigrants, held on to some conservative principles, and modesty was a reinforced value. Taking the bus to school every day, I would bring a change of clothes for when I got to school or strip my outer layers in homeroom, shedding physically and mentally aspects of my home identity. When I got to school early and had the energy, I put on makeup. I wanted to feel as though I had free reign over my own body.

After consulting another 2020er with unique style, it was apparent that I wasn’t alone in my navigation of fashion, body ownership, sense of self and social standing on campus. This Carl grew up in a strict household and with “a lot of uncomfortable looks” regarding the way they dressed and looked: “Freedom of expression was never for me… Now I’m able to go out dressed differently, but there’s a lot of me restraining myself still, because in the back of my head I hear what I heard growing up.” Fashion “comes with a lot of guilt”: “I grew up Muslim, so I feel guilty when I dress less ‘modest,’ whatever that means.” At the same time, however, this Carl expresses that she is trying to dress the way she wants to and reclaim ownership of her body, for it has never been hers but has “shifted from hand to hand in the hands of other people.”

And it’s true: from birth, the doctor hands you to your parents and tells them, “this is your baby.” From that moment on, there are multiple stakeholders in your body. For my fellow classmate and friend, comments like “don’t have sex” create a shift in the sense of self, placing ownership in the hands of a future spouse. The way you dress, then, is a manifestation of what it means to own who you are amidst cultural norms, social values, family expectations, and much, much more.

Fashion can entail agency, liberation and power. At its rawest form, fashion is a vehicle for self-expression. Sometimes it takes a loss of autonomy to realize the significance of how we dress—and yes, Carleton students and staff do judge each other for what they wear and how they wear it.

Note: Here’s some food for thought. Talking with my two interviewees, we agreed that most cultures, especially non-Western cultures, usually involve a loss of autonomy over your body. When you try to enforce autonomy, then, are you promoting westernization? Progress doesn’t always equal westernization, but when POC deviate from cultural norms, they are often described as “American.”

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